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Sugar-sweetened drinks increase risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke

Researchers hope that better education of the public will reduce their consumption of the beverages.

By
Stephen Feller
About half of the United States population consumes at least one sugar-sweetened soft drink per day. Photo by abc7/Shutterstock
About half of the United States population consumes at least one sugar-sweetened soft drink per day. Photo by abc7/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- Sugar-sweetened drinks, either with table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, have long been referred to as increasing the risk for a range of health conditions. Researchers in a large new study have found evidence the beverages lead to excess weight gain and increase the risk for developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

While the body handles table sugar, or sucrose, in ways different than it handles high fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sweetener made from corn starch, the two generally are used together in sodas, juices and other drinks.

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Dr. Frank Hu, lead researcher in the new study, said his hope is that people will begin to reduce their consumption of the drinks as changes to nutritional labels reflect the actual amount of sugar included in them.

"Since we rarely consume fructose in isolation, the major source of fructose in the diet comes from fructose-containing sugars, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup, in sugar-sweetened beverages," said Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a press release. "Our findings underscore the urgent need for public health strategies that reduce the consumption of these drinks."

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Researchers reviewed data on 84,628 women collected between 1980 and 2010 as part of the Nurses' Health Study and 42,908 men collected between 1986 and 2010 as part of the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. None of the participants had diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer at the start of their participation, and were follow-up every with 4 years.

During the 24 to 30 year follow-up period, the researchers found consuming two sugar-sweetened drinks per day had a 35 percent increase in the risk for heart attack or fatal heart disease, a 16 percent increase in risk for stroke, and as high as a 26 percent increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Concern for increased obesity, and risk for chronic health conditions, is based on roughly half of the United States population consuming at least one sugar-sweetened beverage per day. One in four Americans consumes at least 200 calories per day from the drinks, and 5 percent of the population gets 500 calories per day from them -- the equivalent of 4 cans of soda.

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Glucose, one component of sugar, is absorbed into the gastrointestinal tract and used by the body for fuel. Fructose, however, is metabolized in the liver and converted into triglycerides, which can lead to fatty liver disease and insulin resistance, a risk factor for both cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

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Hu said education about the beverages, which is expected in the form of more detailed nutritional labeling, may help the problem with overconsumption. People, however, will need to reduce their intake themselves -- even as researchers continue to understand what sugar and other sweeteners do to the body.

"Although reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages or added sugar alone is unlikely to solve the obesity epidemic entirely, limiting intake is one simple change that will have a measurable impact on weight control and prevention of cardio-metabolic diseases," Hu said.

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The study is published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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